As part of our series on equity in education, we want to explore ways educators can offer better solutions to their students to ensure an equitable learning environment. As COVID uncertainties remain high, many educators wonder how they will be able to connect with their students at a more human-level while they are teaching remotely. In this article, we break down what empathy actually entails and how educators can implement it in their online classrooms.
What empathy is
Empathy is a form of connection that allows you to place yourself in someone else's shoes and understand how they feel in a given situation. It's the comforting voice that we tell each other when we are told, "You are not alone." Empathy is not about feeling sorry for someone, but rather, seeing a person as equal or on the same level as yourself, and trying to understand or connect with them.
The four parts of empathy
1. Perspective taking
To understand what someone else is feeling, we must first put aside our feelings or biases to see the situation from our students' eyes. And to do that effectively, we must understand the complex web of context that allows for that event to occur.
Take, for example: if a student submits an assignment late because they had to work and didn't have time to complete it, you might tell them that they need to understand their priorities better or that they cannot receive an extension. What if the story behind that late-assignment is that the student lives in a single-parent home, their mother can't work because she is sick, and the student's side job is the only income available to pay for school and living costs. Does that story change your perspective on the student's late assignment? Being able to see events and occurrences from other standpoints is the first step in building empathy.
2. Putting aside judgement
When faced with a situation, it's easy to react based upon our judgements or opinions about the circumstances. But instead of rushing to judgement, take a moment to ask yourself what other pieces of information do I need to understand this situation better?
3. Understanding how others feel
It's helpful to reflect on our own experiences and how we may have felt at a particular time when encountered with a similar situation. But we must always remember that an individual's feelings are unique to them based upon their exceptional circumstances. Therefore, we cannot merely extrapolate how we felt to be the same as how one should feel, given a similar situation.
4. Let your students know you understand
When discussing situations with your students, try using reflective language such as "I hear and understand your concerns…" Being able to create a space where students don't feel judged will go a long way in ensuring that they feel comfortable addressing concerns with you.
How to bring empathy into your classroom
1. Be accommodating
The pandemic has turned so many of our lives upside down; outside of school, students grapple with job losses, increased feelings of isolation and depression, and higher anxiety levels as their future remains uncertain. Have flexible due dates for assignments, and move past participation and attendance grades as some students may not be able to attend classes regularly.
2. Asynchronous & flexible learning
With online learning, educators don't need to have a set time block for live lectures. Move your course towards asynchronous learning to allow students greater flexibility in how they want to structure their learning. Instead of a 3-hour lecture, create smaller pre-recorded videos and include case-studies and mini-assignments that allow students to take an active part in their learning, rather than simply listening to a lecture.
3. Curate different viewpoints
Many students feel disenfranchised with their learnings because of their history, or their unique story is not represented in the teachings of an educator. Utilizing assessment forms like peer evaluation allows students to be exposed to different points of view, mainly, the opinions and understandings held by their peers. Suddenly a class of 80 students is no longer being assessed by a single individual (the professor), but rather a diverse group of student peers. Being exposed to different perspectives broadens a student's understanding of a concept beyond that taught by a teacher.
One of the biggest challenges students face with online learning is the lack of personalized feedback they receive on their assessments. Lack of personalized feedback coupled with reduced communication between students and professors hinders a students overall learning.
Taking a step back to adjust how you teach and administer your course while online will go a long way in helping students overcome the challenges online learning has presented. Empathy is a teaching tool to better communicate with your students and to facilitate a better learning environment. When used correctly, it allows students to feel confident that they can excel to their full potential, regardless of the setbacks they may encounter.